The High School North boys’ soccer team is off to another fast start, but Alex Quezada believes that this year’s will continue.
The senior midfielder added an assist to his early team-leading total as the Knights pulled out a hard fought 3-2 overtime win at Nottingham followed by a scoreless tie against Princeton to improve to 3-0-2.
“It’s giving us a lot of motivation to continue this run,” said Quezada, who already had three assists in the first four games. “Last year we also had this run but unfortunately it started to go downhill halfway through the season. We want to make sure we keep this run.”
Last year, the Knights started 5-0-3 before injuries heading into a tough stretch of opponents contributed to a five-game losing streak. Within that skid were losses to Hopewell Valley and Notre Dame. WW-P North already has tied Hopewell and knocked off Notre Dame, 2-0, to open this year. They also won 1-0 over Lawrence, another team to beat them last year.
“We’re a smart team,” said Knights head coach Trevor Warner. “We’re making runs at the right time. They’re a pretty cohesive group. We’re senior heavy, we have 12 seniors so there’s some experience. Last year we won a state game and we probably could have done a little better, but we had some big injuries and lost some guys for a long period of time. I think experience galvanized them last year and it’s helping them win games this year.
Having more experience is a big plus. Part of that was gained through the injuries a year ago that forced younger players into bigger roles. Now those players return with varsity experience.
The team started to gel in the preseason, showing an ability to play together and for each other.
“We were stringing a lot of passes together, playing a lot of 1-2’s, there was a cohesiveness to our team that makes us really good,” Quezada said. “There aren’t any weak spots.”
Quezada helps in the middle of the field. He’s exploring Division III options for next year, and brings a strong skillwork and playmaking in the midfield that helps North.
“Alex along with Mark Chiriac in the middle, they generate our attack,” Warner said. “Everything starts with them. They have to touch the ball as much as they can. Alex has some of the best feet in the county. He was a first-team player in the CVC last year. We want him to have the ball as much as he can. He finds open players, he’s savvy enough with the ball that he makes defenders miss and he delivers the last pass. He’s had a few assists already. He has a real sense in finding open players and the attack.”
Said Quezada: “I’ve moved around in the midfield playing winger, trying to see how that affects our play and making runs down the wing. I’m mainly in the middle, trying to build up that play and put those passes through for my teammates so they can finish their chances and I try to contribute on defense too.”
The defense has been the difference early on, and that’s where North was hit hardest by injuries a year ago. The Knights have shown their improvement with shutouts three of the first five games in front of goalie Brendan Kerins.
“One of our center backs, Evan Robinson, is a huge piece to our back four,” Warner said. “Unfortunately in our third game last year, he broke his ribs and he was gone for the season. That was a huge blow. He’s come in a year wiser and he’s a little bigger and stronger and he keeps everything strong in the back for us. Skandan Venkatraman, with Evan’s injury last year, he stepped in. He came up from the JV team and got valuable playing experience and I think that’s really helped him transition into a starting role this year.”
“Those two help in our back,” he added. “One of our goals is to keep our opponents to a zero—(Nottingham) was the first two goals we’ve given up in our first four games so that was disappointing, but we were happy to come away with a win.”
Three different players had goals against Nottingham. Jean Anthony Portuguez, Robinson and Liam Stern scored. Chiriac and Quezada had assists.
“We have a better attacking style than we’ve had in recent years,” Warner said. “The scoring is very balanced. We’re getting scoring from everybody. I think five guys have scored goals—Anthony, Mark, Liam, Evan and Sean (Ryan) have scored in our first four games. When you can get that kind of balanced scoring, that makes it difficult for an opposing defense to contain you.”
More than the specific players, it’s been the effort that the Knights have been leaning on in the early going. It’s a trait they hope to see carry through into tournament time.
“We want to make sure the opponent doesn’t have time to think about their next move,” Quezada said. “That hard work to press the opponent, that can dismantle them.”
There has been newfound resiliency from the Knights too. It’s helped even when things haven’t been going perfectly to get them a good outcome.
“We had a tough game against a very athletic Notre Dame team, and we not only played really good soccer, we matched them physically and we were very determined on the field,” Warner said. “Hopefully those things continue.”
“I feel like we have a lot more trust in each other and our chemistry is a lot better for some reason,” Quezada said. “We look after each other and get into tackles when we see the other team is harassing one of our players.”
Warner would like to see his team be even better at taking advantage of its chances. He’s pushing the Knights to be more consistent start to finish with some of the same effort that has allowed them to open the year well.
“We have to avoid lapses,” Warner said. “The Notre Dame game was probably our most complete game and there were moments when we allowed our opponent to dictate play.
“We have to do a better job of sustaining high level play and when you have an opportunity, you have to put your opponent away. That’s the one thing we haven’t done. We’ve been fortunate to win early on, but the games that we’ve won were really close and they shouldn’t have been that close.”
Working hard throughout games remains a key for the Knights. They caught a glimpse of their potential in their fast start, and it is pushing Quezada and his dozen classmates in their last chance to do something special for WW-P North.
“For all the seniors, we have to show our experience for the younger players,” Quezada said. “I think there’s only seven non-seniors. Hopefully we can leave a good impression. And hopefully they can learn from our play and continue North’s style.”